Cross-Cultural Differences in Business Presentations

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“Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.”     Prof. Geert Hofstede

Doing business globally often requires us to adapt and adjust our communication styles, and presentations are no exception. Although globalization is causing the lines between cultures to blur, it is still beneficial to understand the background of our audience. We may be required to adjust our message, structure and style according to the culture in which we are presenting.  In some cases this can make or break our presentation.

What cultural differences impact presentation skills?

1) Problem analysis versus solution focus

Japanese and Western presentations often differ in structure. An American presentation will usually give recommendations or solutions at the beginning of the presentation, and then go on to justify these recommendations. This is in contrast to the Japanese style in which there is a tendency to give a lot of background data on a topic, slowly leading up to recommendations, which are often presented at the end of the presentation. Have you ever asked yourself why?

The answer is found in the difference of required information in different cultures. In the US, for example, business people prefer to spend more time discussing possible solutions than on problem analysis. Compare this to Japan where often business people want to explore a problem thoroughly before searching for solutions. This is also closely linked to another cultural comparison, “extensive background context versus limited background context.” In extensive background context cultures, such as Japan, a rich background picture needs to be created.

2) Direct (Explicit) versus Indirect (Implicit)

This explicit versus implicit communication style is one of the more common theories on cross-cultural communications and has particular relevance in a Japanese context.  Japan is generally considered to be a high-context society, resulting in a very implicit or implied style of communication.

The phrase “reading between the lines” holds particular importance in Japan where conflict, criticism, or negativity is often avoided. In these situations Japanese people, placing high value on relationships, will often give indirect answers. As we all know, here in Japan the phrase “it is difficult to do” often means “it is impossible” whereas in the US “it is difficult to do” means just that – “it is difficult but perhaps we can do it.”

It is useful to consider this when making a presentation. Remember, if you are presenting to a western audience be sure to use logical and direct phrases and don’t be afraid of presenting negative information.

3) Individualism versus collectivism (group)

In presentations this dimension is related to framing benefits: is it a benefit to the individual or to the group? In some cultures, you will need to point out the benefits to the group for them to be convinced of its value. A good example of this is the Sony Walkman. In the West it provided the listener with high-quality listening pleasure. In the East, it allowed you to listen to music without disturbing others.

Geert Hofstede wrote that in some societies individualism is encouraged – everyone is expected to look after him/herself. On the collectivist side he believes that in other societies people are integrated into strong, cohesive groups and encouraged to work together.

The following diagram illustrates the difference between Japan, the US and Denmark:

Fig 1: Individualism tendency of each culture based on Geert Hofstede’s research

4) Risk inclined versus risk avoidance

Some countries or cultures are more comfortable with risk or ambiguity than others. Edward T. Hall, the creator of the “high-context versus low-context” model, suggested that low-context countries such as the US are quite comfortable with risk whereas high-context countries such as Japan are uncomfortable with it.  He proposed the 80/20 rule, arguing that low-context countries are happy to accept a certain amount of risk or ambiguity, roughly in line with that ratio.  Compare this to Japan where most business people would find 20% uncertainty in any kind of decision making to be unacceptable. How can this affect presentation style?

A culture’s relationship to risk often manifests itself in the amount of information presented. Risk-averse cultures will often require lots of information, details, facts and carefully considered propositions, with all possible downsides, leaving nothing to be assumed by the audience. More risk-inclined cultures want a general picture of the situation and the general steps that will lead to success. They develop a “feel” for the potential success of an idea through first understanding the big picture. If the big picture attracts them then they will enquire further. The key with these cultures is to avoid giving too many details too soon as this audience may grow restless with too much information.

Fig 2. UAI (uncertainty avoidance index) tendency of each culture based on Geert Hofstede’s research.

5) Formal versus Informal

The final cultural difference that may play a part in presentation style is based on the levels of formality appropriate to different cultures. This dimension generally reflects a society’s attitude toward hierarchy or equality. With regard to presentations, more hierarchical cultures (such as Japan) may expect a speaker to take on a certain demeanor according to the situation.  This will even affect the way he or she dresses and the presenter should avoid trying to be overly familiar with the audience or risk losing respect. In more equality-oriented societies (e.g. Denmark, US) keeping a distance can be interpreted as arrogance, which may provoke the audience to find a way to bring you “down” to their level.

6) Other issues

Presenters may also wish to consider aspects such as body language, levels of engagement/interaction and timing.  In some countries over-running is frowned upon whereas in others it is acceptable to extend to supply additional important information.

To conclude, perhaps the most important part of any presentation is to understand your audience. This includes their needs, motivations, wants and – as highlighted here – their cultural background.

What are your opinions on the issues covered in this article? Do you agree or disagree? What style of presentation do you prefer?

Please feel free to share you experiences or ask any question, we’d love to hear them and will reply to all comments.



Cross-Cultural Differences in Conflict Management

In our first blog we looked at Edward Hall’s “High and Low Context” model, which categorizes countries and their behaviors into distinct contextual groups. We took Hall’s model a step further and highlighted some specific areas of difference between high and low context societies. For example, in high context cultures such as Japan relationships are crucial and take a long time to build. Due to the importance placed on relationships there is often a tendency to avoid conflict, disagreement and criticism of ideas. On the other hand in low context societies, such as the US and Northern European countries, relationships can begin and end quickly. Conflict and disagreement are accepted and often seen as an opportunity for positive engagement.

This time we will expand on this area and discuss how culture can create significant challenges when attempting to resolve conflict. We will also offer advice on how to overcome such challenges, which we hope will help develop your understanding of cross-cultural communications in global organizations.

What do we mean by “conflict”? Our dictionary defines it as “an incompatibility between two or more opinions, principles or interests.” Or in other words, anything from a minor disagreement to a major argument; even war. Conflict (though hopefully not war!) is unavoidable in business. The key issue for international business people is: “How can we successfully overcome conflict?”

To answer this question it is useful to investigate some of the differences in conflict resolution style between high and low context cultures.

Conflict in High Context Societies:

• In general members of high context societies tend to avoid conflict.
• Disagreement with colleagues is often avoided due to the fear of “loss of face.”
• Business people tend to avoid disagreements and conflict with clients at all costs, even if client requests are unreasonable.
• Disagreeing with management, especially in more traditional organizations, is avoided.
• Disagreeing with superiors in these “top-down management” structures is seen as disrespectful. Silent acceptance is often expected.
• There is more emotional attachment to ideas so criticism of ideas can lead to emotional responses and damage relationships.

Conflict in Low Context Societies:

• In general conflict is accepted
• Conflict and disagreement is seen as an opportunity for engagement within teams and between colleagues.
• Management expects subordinates to proactively challenge ideas. “Management by objectives”
• Employees who positively challenge management and engage in potential conflict situations are respected.
• Silence in conflict situations is often seen as lack of interest or ability.
• When communicating with clients in conflict situations, discovery and exploratory questions are used to discover reasons for differences, rather than acceptance and accommodation.
• There is less emotional attachment to ideas and a more objective approach is required.

These are, of course, generalizations so we should be wary of lazily stereotyping nations, organizations or individuals. However truly globalized business people will consider these fundamentally different styles of dealing with conflict; they each have their own advantages and disadvantages, and the ability to adapt according to the situation is an invaluable tool. Failure to consider our counterparts’ cultural backgrounds is one of the biggest barriers facing international business people.

Many experts in the field of conflict management have written at great length on various strategies to overcome cultural boundaries. William Ury suggests that active listening, or “stepping to the side of your counterpart” is a crucial step in conflict management. Whilst this has considerable value in low context societies, it raises a difficulty in countries such as Japan where actively listening by asking lots of questions can cause annoyance. Here at Platinum we often experience this at first hand when delivering our training courses. Japanese participants frequently complain about the amount of questioning and clarifying done by their global colleagues, leading to frustration on both sides. Overcoming this cultural barrier where active listening through questioning is seen by one side as “positive engagement” and by the other as “communication overkill” is just one of the many challenges of globalization.

In our Cross-cultural Conflict Management workshop we use a tool called the “Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument” (TKI) to help us identify which communication styles we favor when dealing with conflict. After completion of a multiple-choice test, trainee tendencies are categorized and mapped on an X-Y axis showing assertiveness and cooperativeness.
When delivering this course we help participants to first identify their own preferred style, then develop new communication skills in areas of weakness, and finally try and identify the different styles used by other people. This process is rather detailed and individual, but today we’d like to share with you an interesting observation from our experiences of running the course.
The graph below shows the results of recent participants, categorized according to their communication styles:

It’s striking to see that nearly all of the Japanese (high context) trainees tended towards a more cooperative than assertive style. They try to accommodate or avoid when faced with conflict, whereas the American and Australian (low context) participants preferred a more competitive or collaborative approach. The key issue is not which style is best, but the gap between the two cultures represented by the dashed black line. For example, if an “accommodator” is faced with a “competitor”, the most likely outcome is that he will accept most of the “competitor’s” requests or arguments, regardless of merit. This will inevitably lead to poor outcomes and further disputes, either on a corporate or individual level.

In order to try and overcome this cultural gap there are certain tips and communication techniques we can employ in cross-cultural conflict situations, such as:

• Research the cultural background of your counterparts
• Accept that there are different ways to respond in conflict situations, not one “best way”
• Be open to different communication styles (understand, accept, embrace)
• Learn how to understand and identify your counterparts’ communication styles
• Understand your own preferred conflict communication style
• Do not be afraid to adjust your communication style when appropriate
• Always be prepared to listen first, talk second
• Be objective (do not react emotionally)
• Be prepared to explore options together with your counterpart
• Focus on shared interests, not on inflexible positions

To conclude, regardless of cultural background or natural communication preference, the best leaders are able to switch communications styles depending on their environment and situation. The ability to recognize, understand and accept other people’s conflict management styles is essential in the global workplace.

What are your opinions on the issues covered in this article? Do you think you have a natural tendency towards one conflict style over another? Is this related to your cultural background? Do you find it easy to adapt to different communication styles? Have you experienced any cross-cultural conflicts in your business? Were you able to resolve them successfully?

Please feel free to share your experiences. We’d love to hear them and will reply to all comments.

An Introduction to “Cross-Cultural Challenges” in Global Organizations

Welcome to the first chapter of our “Cross-Cultural Challenges in Global Organizations” blog series. Over the next few months we plan to discuss some of the challenges faced by business people when communicating with colleagues from different cultures, with a particular focus on Japan.  We’d also like to generate some discussion on these issues and would welcome your observations, comments and insights.

Professor Geert Hofstede wrote that  “Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.”

Whilst there is some truth in this, we prefer to look at this area in a more positive light.  Culture can indeed be a cause of conflict or misunderstandings but it can also be a chance for organizational and personal development. New opportunities can arise if we can first understand, adjust to and eventually embrace cultural differences – an international organization that effectively tackles these issues gives itself a significant competitive advantage over rivals. This sounds good in theory, but how can we do this in practice?  Even the first step, “understanding” seems an impossible task given the complexity of human societies.

One approach is to examine specific areas of difference and to consider how they affect interactions in a society.  Edward Hall provided a perfect starting point for this kind of analysis with his “High and Low Context” model in which he categorized countries and their behaviors into distinct contextual groups.

In this model “context” refers to the amount of knowledge required before effective communication can occur. In some cultures a lot of background information is required to communicate effectively but in other cultures the opposite is true.  Hall places Japan among the highest context cultures, whereas some European countries are at the other end of the scale.  This can affect all aspects of our communication and may be one of the reasons why some global business people struggle to adapt to Japan’s business and communication style – and vice versa.

How do these differences affect business relationships?  Of course this varies greatly depending on the countries and individuals concerned, but in general we can observe the following broad tendencies:

High Context Low Context
Relationships are important and take time to build.

How things get done depends on relationships with others and the precedent that has been set (Think about meetings and time management)

Message often delivered nonverbally: (expressions & gestures)

Disagreement is avoided. Issues are often solved without either side “losing face”

Criticising an idea attacks the person who suggested it, and is avoided. “More emotional attachment to ideas.”

Accuracy is valued and how well something can be delivered is important (100% accuracy)

Written and spoken communications try to provide all the background information the receiver or listener needs for an overall understanding of the situation. (Emails, presentations)

Rationale can often be emotionally based (Gut feelings, attachment to ideas)

Relationships can begin and end, based on situations.

Things get done by following procedures, paying attention to agendas, objectives and outcomes (Think about meetings and time management)

Message is delivered by words rather than nonverbal means.

Disagreement is accepted and often seen as an opportunity. “positive-engagement”

Criticising an idea is not personal. Challenging is expected and seen as a way to improve ideas.

Speed is valued and how efficiently something can be done is important. (80/20 rule)

Written and spoken communications focus on the specific points the receiver or listener needs to know to understand the specifici situation, (e,g, executive summary, clear & concise)

Logical rational and discussion is vital (Facts, figures and statistics, less attachement to ideas,)


We feel that this model is a good starting point on the road to cross-cultural understanding.  What do you think? Is the theory sound?  Where does your country fit in Hall’s model? Have you experienced any of the difficulties outlined above? How did you overcome them?  How did your organization deal with them?

We’ll be replying to all comments and questions directly so don’t be shy, share your experiences!